More than 1 million cut off in Sri Lanka's deluge

by Amantha Perera
Courtesy: The Times

(January 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) When the rains began on Dec. 26 along the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, they brought with them a foreboding sense of unease. The day after Christmas still gives the chills to those living here since the day six years ago when the Asian tsunami pulverized communities living along the beach.

This year, the nightmare has returned, raining almost continuously now for over fifteen days over an area of about 4000 square miles. According to data from the Meteorology Department, it has not rained like this in the worst-affected district of Batticaloa since 1917. "The whole of Batticaloa town is like a big tank," says Kirubantharasa Janoshini, a resident of Batticoloa. "The main roads look like large, nasty rivers."

By the morning of Jan. 14, officials estimate that 1,081,000 people have been cut-off by floods along Sri Lanka's eastern seaboard and nearby districts. The Disaster Management Centre, the main government body overseeing the massive relief effort, said that 360,000 had sought refuge in temporary camps set up at schools, temples, government buildings and anywhere else flood victims felt safe. Only 27 deaths had been reported with 12 people now listed as missing. The government has deployed 28,000 service personnel and police to assist the relief effort and also set aside four Bell transport helicopters. But inclement weather has not made air transport easy; even President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to cut short his inspection tour to the east.

Sri Lanka is used to flash flooding. Since last May, the country has been hit by two large incidents in May and November that together affected close to a million people. In November, as the yearly monsoon set in, the capital Colombo was waterlogged on numerous occasions. But the intensity of this month's rains is something that no one counted on. "Unless you are at a welfare camp, you have to go and locate relief supplies," Janoshini said. "It is very difficult."

Kirupairajah Gowriswaran, a regional official with UNICEF, says that over 90% of Batticaloa's residents have been cut-off by the floods. Some remote parts of the district were totally cut-off as gushing floodwaters flowed over low lying areas. On Thursday morning, the village of Panichchankerni, about 37 miles (60 km) north of Batticaloa, was inaccessible as the main bridge on the only access road was four feet under water, residents and military officials said. "Some of these villages are only reachable by boat now," says Chanuka Wattegama, a volunteer with the local relief group Sarvodaya.

Until yesterday, supplies to Batticaloa and the adjoining Ampara district were disrupted as persistent rains flooded large stretches of the main road. "The water level was so high that people were using the elevated rail track to get out," Karunarathne Gamage a resident in another nearby district told TIME. By this morning, weather had eased enough for some supply vehicles to attempt to reach Batticaloa via the region's main road.

The floods are certain to leave a large relief and reconstruction bill in their wake. Over 18,000 houses will need major repairs, and the Highways Ministry said that parts of 152 roads, including main highways, are already in need of major repairs. Agrarian Minister S M Chandrasena said that over 200,000 acres of rice paddy has gone under water, and initial assessments by the U.N. have found that over 200 small reservoirs in Batticaloa had been breached and water was flowing out. Sarvodaya's Wattegama says that as long as rains persist, Batticaloa will remain nervous that the nearby Unnichchi reservoir could burst its banks, sending more unwelcome water through the district's streets.

As the extent of the disaster has become clear, official appeals for assistance have begun to pour in. On Wednesday, the government released a list of items that were urgently needed in the east, including over five million water purification tablets, over a million plates and cups, medicine and clothes. The government had allocated over a million dollars for immediate relief efforts; the World Food Programme also began providing food to 400,000 on Jan. 10, with an allocation of around $500,000. In Colombo, officials with the U.N. relief effort say it is running dangerously low on funds and will make a fresh appeal for funding in the next few days. On the ground out east, Wattegama says that relief was still ad-hoc and informal: "I did not see a proper coordinated structure even on January 12."

Still, the U.N. says that response coordination is improving as teams have been able to reach flood-hit areas. "There are some problems because we can't reach some villages, but with the weather easing we are getting to more places," says Palitha Bandara Assistant Director of the Disaster Management Centre. The immediate assistance will have to continue for at least a fortnight, relief workers on the ground told TIME, then the large repairs will have to begin. "The bigger challenge will be restoring roads, the reservoirs, houses and the agriculture land," Wattegama says. Who will pick up that bill remains to be seen.

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